John Bergen (February 16, 1903 – September 30, 1978) was an
actor and radio performer, best known as a ventriloquist. He was born
in Chicago, Illinois to a Swedish family, grew up in Decatur, Michigan,
and taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet when he was only 11. A
few years later he commissioned a woodcarver to make a portrait of a
rascally Irish newspaperboy he knew. The head went on a puppet named
Charlie McCarthy, who became Bergen's lifelong sidekick.
His first performances were in vaudeville and one-reel movie shorts, but his real success was on the radio. He and Charlie were seen at a Hollywood party by Noel Coward, who recommended them for an appearance on Rudy Vallee's program - the appearance was so successful that the next year they were given their own show. They were on the air from 1937 to 1956.
For the radio program, Bergen developed other characters, notably the slow-witted Mortimer Snerd and the man-hungry Effie Clinker. The star, however, was Charlie, who was always presented as a child – albeit in top-hat, cape, and monocle – a debonair, girl-crazy, child-about-town. As a child, and a wooden one at that, Charlie could get away with double entendre that adult humans could not, even in those more-censored times.
Charlie: "May I have a kiss good-bye?"
Dale Evans: "Well I can't see any harm in that!"
Charlie: "Oh. I wish you could. A harmless kiss doesn't sound very thrilling."
Similar lines given to Mae West in a sketch on the show resulted in her 15-year broadcasting ban.
Charlie's feud with W. C. Fields was a regular feature of the show.
Bergen was not the most technically skilled ventriloquist – Charlie McCarthy frequently twitted him for moving his lips; but his sense of comedic timing was superb, and he handled Charlie's snappy dialogue with aplomb. Bergen's brilliant wit in creating McCarthy's striking personality and that of his other characters was the making of the show. And moving his lips hardly mattered, as he was a radio ventriloquist.
Bergen and McCarthy are sometimes credited with "saving the world" because, on the night of October 30, 1938 when Orson Welles performed his War of the Worlds radio play that so panicked the nation, most of the American public had tuned in to hear Bergen and McCarthy and never heard Welles' play.
After the radio show ended, Bergen and McCarthy appeared on the television show Do You Trust Your Wife?, and also in live performance. In addition to his work as a ventriloquist, Bergen was also an actor. He appeared as the shy Norwegian suitor in I Remember Mama (1948). He also appeared in Captain China (1949) and Don't Make Waves (1965). He and McCarthy appeared in The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and in The Muppet Movie (1979). It was his last appearance, and the film was dedicated to him. In 1938 Bergen was presented an Honorary Oscar (in the form of a wooden Oscar stauette) for his creation of Charlie McCarthy.
He attended Northwestern University, but did not graduate. Later the school gave him an honorary degree as Master of Innuendo and Snappy Comeback.
Edgar Bergen died in Las Vegas, Nevada at age 75. He was elected to the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year that The Charlie McCarthy Show was selected as an honored program.